16 trails, over 15,000 metres height difference – the twins Caro and Anita Gehrig set a new world record for trail biking in Vinschgau (South Tyrol).

It is not yet six o’clock in the morning, as the Enduro profis Caro and Anita Gehrig set off on their first downhill leg in the direction of the first shuttle. Once there, Caro takes a deep breath and exclaims, “That’s the first 1000 metres behind us. Now only fifteen times as many and we’ve done it.” It shows where the journey is heading on this sunny day in Vinschgau, South Tyrol. 15,000 vertical metres height difference on downhill trails is the distance that the twins want to complete in one day, thus beating the unofficial world record set by Thomi Giger and Thomas Frischknecht. In 2013 in the area around Davos the two men succeeded in completing 13,572 downhill metres in one day. For sure, greater height differences had been completed in the past, but presumably never without riding the same trail twice.


Two 27-year-old Swiss women have thus got it into their heads to break the joint record of the biker legend and the biking author and because the latter rates the trails of the north Italian alpine valleys highly, he recommends that they tackle his record there. Vinschgau is in fact comparable with Davos in terms of down-hill trails, it just does not have the cable-cars. There are only two permanently installed lifts there: a gondola on the southern slope, and a chairlift on the opposite side of the valley. Of course, the two bikers use the two existing lifts as often as possible in order to cover as many trails as they can reach from the mountain stations. Shuttle rides are essential to achieve the full 15,000 metres and that means even more meticulous planning is necessary to get to altitude often enough to reach the target distance in just one day.


So someone is needed who is familiar with the mountains: his name is Martin Pirhofer, he runs a four-star hotel, is a bike-guide, and with a height of 2.03 metres, knows exactly how to get down from a great height. Next to him the two young bikers, who are pretty tall themselves, look like little girls. In his middle forties, Martin is exceptionally fast on the steep and rocky trails and even more importantly he is a also brilliant organiser. Driver, guides, a physiotherapist and a bike mechanic are ready and waiting for his instructions. A special permit here, fifteen portions of pasta there, a 29 inch tubeless wheel, all ready and waiting at a petrol station – nothing is a problem when one has Big Martin, as he is known in the valley, at their side. You can’t help thinking he could make a pizza delivery to a mountain top or maybe even hold back a river.


Big Martin and his helpers

Nevertheless he does not take on all of the 15,000 m himself. One of his younger colleagues, Felix, acts as guide for part of the day. Another local, Franz, also turns out to be an important factor in the success: “The best rally driver there is” enthuses Anita. Although he charges up the smallest of mountain roads at such a pace that the two bikers have to lay down afterwards to calm their stomachs. Time lost in catering and loading up the bikes in the valley is quickly made up for by Franz and his pick-up. “I drove like a maniac, but it was necessary” he describes his style of driving.


The trails provide plenty of excitement themselves: steep, obstructed and very often exposed; furrows, ridges, jagged rocks, slippery roots – everything there is to make biking exacting. It is entirely in keeping with the record attempt that the trails have large height differences within just a few kilometres. “But we could have definitely chosen an easier terrain in which to ride down 15,000 metres” says Caro after the umpteenth descent. On top of that, the two Enduro specialists are seeing about two thirds of the trails for the first time on the day of the record attempt. “It helps us to stay focussed” says Anita looking on the bright side.


Reluctantly Anita and Caro sit down at a table and polish off a helping of pasta. They find the half-hour lunch break “inefficient”. At this point they have been underway for eight hours, and haven’t yet got even half of the targeted altitude descent under their belts. The prospect of a further eight hours ascending and descending is only moderately appealing, despite their desire to cover more trails.

Cliff-hanger on the chair-lift

As if they needed to lose even more time, the nice man at the chair-lift forgets to remove Anita’s bike from the hook and in dismay the twins see the bike swinging off back down the mountain. The lift has no reverse gear and to go back down and then up again would take another 40 minutes, and their schedule would come to nothing. However the worker, still sleepy, discovers his inner hero. He climbs the mast, leans out to reach the bike, attaches it to a rope and lowers it to the ground and then climbs back down. The downhill contest can continue!


A little later they reach another high point. “Holy Hansen” is the name of the trail, called after the father of one of its builders. Somewhat atypically for the area it is impressive with specially constructed obstacles and jumps and seems to flow without end. The other trails are, as already mentioned, more in the category of “handlebar handstands”. These of course also offer a lot of fun, but more for the type of biker whose forearms are as strong as their thighs, and who can remain cool when their insides are running into their heads because their bodies are up in the air. “Repeatedly the only practical line is no more than 20 cm wide, and you really don’t want to be riding outside of that” describes Anita during one of the countless shuttle rides. Maintaining concentration while hands and arms get weaker is the over-riding requirement on this day.

Helen Gehrig, the twins’ mother is also responsible for keeping their energy levels up during the day. Together with their father Karl, she is always there when the quartet – which includes the guide and cameraman – reach the bottom of a downhill leg. Alongside the usual energy bars, recovery shakes, carbo-electrolyte solutions and “wing-giving” energy drinks there are also the staples of dried fruits, chocolate, sandwiches and porridge ready and waiting. Their mother is only worried when she can’t easily find the next destination. She is certain, “They need their food, otherwise they won’t stay the distance”. And she’s right, hunger never leaves them the whole day. Father Karl, himself a passionate cyclist, busies himself looking after whichever bike looks the most worrying at the moment, changing a wheel, tightening a screw, or telling them “that will be fine, don’t worry”.


Hard trails to the last

The sun shines mercilessly that day and even at altitude the temperature reaches about 30° in the shade. The task won’t get any easier, that is clear. They celebrate the 10,000 metre descent point spontaneously in the woods, giving each other strength. “We’ll manage the last 5,000 metres too!” although they know that those last metres will be incredibly long ones. ”I’m slowly going into auto-pilot mode” announces Caro on another trip to the top and Anita admits “This is definitely outside the comfort zone.” Indeed during preparations it was discussed that easier trails should be ridden towards the end of the day, because concentration and braking muscles would be becoming weaker. But “easier” is a relative term and in the end enough height has got to be annihilated in a reasonable time. So – it goes on steeply downhill. The two bike profis also have to descend a few metres on foot. It’s too dangerous to risk not only the record but also to jeopardise the rest of the season.


“Another 500 metres to go!” announces Anita looking at the 14,499 metres shown on cumulative altitude descent of their bike computer. Anita has mistakenly set hers to zero so they treat Caro’s device like a raw egg when they put it in the car. It is now 9 pm and another target has been missed. The two wanted to arrive in daylight because they have never ridden trails in the dark with just using the bike lights. The same applies to guide Martin who is literally getting to see one of his trails in a different light! The closing stages will be really uncomfortable, but this rather fits in with the adventure that the twins have let themselves in for, not knowing whether they would be capable of completing the 15,000 metre descent.


Anyone who has ever ridden trails at night knows that even with the strongest headlights, it takes a lot of getting used to – obstacles seem to come towards you quicker and the fact that, even though you don’t recognise it, you are actually travelling slower than in daylight, so that each root and obstacle seems to be even higher.


The Dark Ending

In the meantime outside the hotel, Karl Gehrig takes a long piece of toilet paper and writes on it, 15,000 metres. He and his wife want to stretch it across the road which the two heroines will come down. The church bell strikes ten and there is still no sign of their daughters. An accident on the last descent would be quite possible in the dark and after more than 16 hours of continuous riding. Quarter past ten and still no biker in sight. “I’ve never had toilet paper in my hand for so long!” announced Karl. The cameramen from Swiss TV, who will broadcast the adventure as “Summer Challenge”, can hardly wait for the end. And then – here they come, cheering as they arrive, riding through the toilet paper finishing tape and then falling into each others’ and everyone else’s arms. Their forearms are surprisingly still strong enough to uncork a couple of bottles of champagne. “We’ve ridden really exciting trails all day long. It’s been such fun”, they assure everyone in exhausted euphoria. “But now it’s really good it’s over and I don’t need any more trails just yet!” adds Anita. The bike computer shows a descent of 15,117 metres and nobody but Caro and Anita knows exactly how they feel!


Words & Pictures: PR Gehrig

Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of ENDURO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality mountain bike journalism. Click here to learn more.